Teaching about 9/11 in 2011

This week, teachers across the land are greeting students, assigning
seats, issuing textbooks, struggling to remember everyone’s name—and doing
their best to teach one of the most challenging lessons of the year: the events
of September 11, 2001, why they happened, why they matter, and why we are
commemorating them.

The United States didn’t come with a warranty. It has always had to be defended against real threats and bona fide enemies.


All sorts of organizations (including
) are jockeying to ease teachers’ burden—and influence their
instruction—by offering texts, activities, guidance, even entire curricula.
Some of these are fine: accurate, thorough, balanced yet patriotic. (See, for
example, lessons prepared for high school students by the
National September 11 Memorial & Museum.) Others, alas, are wimpy, biased,
or apologetic and may well do teachers and pupils more harm than good.

The U.S. Department of Education unveiled its own dismaying contribution
last week. Its “9/11 Materials for
” exemplifies the creeping tendency in educator-land—especially in
the woeful field known as “social studies”—to obscure the true history of
September 11 and focus instead on a slanted, garbled evaluation of what

Teaching about 9/11 in 2011 click to readNo doubt Secretary Duncan’s team wanted to be helpful to classroom
instructors. Surely they felt an obligation to say something about 9/11. But
what they ended up with illustrates both the deepening risk that the next
generation of young Americans will be clueless about the true significance of
that epochal date in history and the hazards of Uncle Sam tangling at all with
the school curriculum.

The agency starts out with a whopping disclaimer, alerting readers that
it “does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or
completeness of these materials, nor does the inclusion of links to these
materials represent an endorsement of these materials or organizations that
created them.” Nice try. What follows, however, needs more than a disclaimer.

  • The first
    is an agency-compiled collection of stuff intended to build a
    “positive school climate” devoid of “bullying, harassment, and discrimination”
    because “students of certain ethnic and religious minority communities may feel
    particularly vulnerable” on 9/11.
  • Then we
    encounter a “9/11 and the Constitution
    curriculum that purports to use the occasion as a bridge to civics lessons but
    mainly uses the attacks to suggest that government efforts to fight terrorism
    have violated civil liberties.
  • Good Citizens in a Time of
    ” is one lesson featured on ED’s 9/11 anniversary page—courtesy
    of a Chicago website devoted to examples of civil-rights abuses allegedly
    committed by the government in fighting terrorism. Other lessons on the
    page include “Habeas Corpus and ‘Enemy Combatants,’” “Using Torture on
    Suspected Terrorists,” and “Press Freedom and Military Censorship.”
  • Another featured site, “Voices for
    ,” suggests commemorating 9/11 by “exploring alternatives to
    violence for promoting political change." Its lessons look at non-violent
    activism across the world and include quotes from Vietnam War protester Mary
    Beth Tinker (of Tinker
    v. Des Moines
    ). The implicit condemnation of today’s War on Terror is
    hard to escape.

The federal
website also links to myriad federal and outside sources that urge community
service or tolerance—and some, to be fair, that are content-rich. The Library
of Congress collection of primary source accounts and the
National Archives records of the 9/11 Commission are powerful
resources, but readers get little advice as to how to deploy them in the

Taken as a
whole, the Education Department’s main (if unstated) message is painfully
clear: Teachers should strive to safeguard Muslim students from bullying,
should encourage kids to investigate whether government efforts to fight
terrorism have violated civil liberties, and should promote non-violence over
military action.

Such lessons
have their place but this presentation radically overstates their significance
and misses what really matters.

So what
should teachers help their students understand about 9/11?

  • It’s
    real history.
    It really
    happened—and for a reason. For adults, it is impossible to forget
    September 11. They take its importance for granted even if they may disagree as
    to its meaning. But kids don’t have this internalized. No elementary- or
    middle-school student can remember September 2001, even though what happened on
    the eleventh day of that month profoundly altered the world in which they are
    growing up. Which is why teachers must not skip over the facts of the day in
    favor of themes supposedly drawn from it. (“Themes” is the besetting sin of
    social studies.)  
  • Honor
    what was lost
    . Thousands of
    Americans died. Their loss is still being felt by friends, families, and the
    nation. Forget the politics and instead remember—and honor—them.
  • Teach
    students how fragile America can be—and how perilous the planet on which it
    The point isn’t to
    scare children. But the United States didn’t come with a warranty. It has
    always had to be defended against real threats and bona fide enemies. Kids need
    the knowledge base to analyze and understand what came before 9/11 and what’s
    happened since. That’s a big topic, not a one-day lesson. A proper curriculum
    would include the modern history of the Middle East, world religions (including
    the beliefs of radical Islam), examples of American military force effectively
    ensuring national security, and the outpouring of patriotism that followed the
    attacks and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who volunteered for military
    service in Afghanistan and Iraq in the years that followed. 

That’s too much to expect from a federal
agency, particularly in an administration that so often opts to “lead from
behind.” The Education Department would have been well-advised not even to try.
And the nation’s educators would be well-advised to draw their guidance from
other sources.